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East Coast (I): A pitstop in Detroit

Over spring break in late March, I trekked across the East Coast of the United States. It was my first visit across that side of the country, and I covered a substantial amount of ground. This will be a series of posts on my travels and the things I saw along the way. Stop one on my trip was the Midwest heartland and the city of Detroit, Michigan, which I spent a day visiting my old friends Patrick and Elizabeth. They were students on exchange in Australia when I met them during my undergraduate degree, and have since moved back to the US and established themselves in Michigan. Patrick graciously took the day off work to show me around.

I took a red-eye flight leaving San Francisco for Detroit. If you're unfamiliar with the nomenclature, red-eye flights leave very late at night (typically close to midnight), and land early in the morning. The basic deal is that you give up quality (and length) of sleep, but don't lose a day to flying. Unfortunately for me, someone in the Delta Airlines command chain forgot to refuel our aircraft, and so we sat on the plane for nearly an hour whilst the problem was addressed. Finally, we took off roughly sixty minutes behind schedule, and landed around 7:30am at Detroit Wayne County airport. This would prove to be an inauspicious beginning to the flying legs of my trip.

What does opportunity look like?

Detroit was freezing cold; the temperature hovered at close to zero Celsius for most of the day, and an icy wind howled around the city for the day that I was there. I was told that this is typical weather for this time of year, and indeed, chill would be a theme of this trip across the US. I learnt very quickly that winter hangs around for quite some time - even in March, the temperature is low enough in Detroit for large piles of ploughed snow to remain for days, despite the presence of blue skies and sunshine. I had booked my East Coast trip in late March anticipating that I would miss the worst of winter; while this was certainly true, it definitely wasn't warm.

These days, Detroit has become synonymous with urban decay. The city was once great and glorious, powered by the automotive industry and the Motown music scene. But the population peaked in the 1950s at 1.8 million; by 2010, that number would fall 60% to 700,000. The decline of the US automotive industry and the exodus of people to the suburbs or other states has dramatically affected the city. Abandoned and burned-out buildings are everywhere - even in the city centre. I had never before seen anything quite like it. Many parts of the city are so sparsely populated that municipal services are difficult to provide - even basics such as policing, fire protection, garbage collection, and lighting. The sheer scale of abandoned property makes arson common and difficult to counter - hence the scores of burned out buildings. Something that struck me as I looked through the photos I took was the near-complete absence of colour. The cold winter had bleached the ground brown, and the prevailing colour of practically every building was brown or beaten grey. The overcast day really added to the impression of colourlessness.

One surviving relic of the city's former wealth is the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Housed in a spectacular stone building on the Wayne State University campus, the DIA is enormous and filled to the brim with excellent exhibits. Just out the front is one of Rodin's many busts of the Thinker, one of twelve in the United States, and within are artefacts and trinkets, sculptures and busts, recreations and models, and glorious artworks from throughout history. There was a beautiful projection onto a table depicting the lavish extravagance of an aristocratic meal. Collections of mediaeval armour lined the main hall, whilst other wings showed off collections of Asian, European, and American art.

Four Vincent van Gogh paintings formed the centrepiece of the display at the DIA. Three of these are owned by the city, including a self portrait, 'The Diggers', and 'Portrait of Postman Roulin', and each is famous enough that I recognised all of them. The fourth painting was the very famous 'Bedroom in Arles', on loan from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Sadly, photography of the van Gogh exhibit was forbidden, but Patrick and I spent a good amount of time roaming the DIA and perusing its wares. I learned later that the art collection of the museum is valued at over a billion dollars, and it is the second largest publicly owned museum in the United States. The splendour of the institute stood in stark contrast to the city it inhabits, a paean to a bygone era.

The Fisher Building in the city centre

The city centre is strangely empty. Where a large shopping mall once stood now sits a huge carpark; the enormous support columns of the old mall still rise from the ground, as if in hope for something to return. Large, gloriously architectured buildings rise into the sky, but each one looks as if it has seen better days. Indeed, the city features an amazing variety of styles, from New England townhouses to art-deco facades and modern glass skyscrapers. Driving around the city is like taking a walk through a living history of the United States and its tastes through time. But many of the buildings are, like the city, shadows of their former selves. The usual hustle and bustle of a big city, the background thrum of activity, just isn't present here.

Detroit sprawls out over a massive area; yet there is enough vacant land within the city for Paris to fit comfortably. In the formerly affluent areas to the north of the city, enormous mansions lie empty, foreclosed, and for sale. Above is a six bedroom house on Chicago Boulevard, north of the city centre, and it can be yours for less than $300,000. It will probably require a lot of fixing up, and the rest of the neighbourhood is similarly run down, but that's what it's like right now across much of the city.

The Detroit skyline from Belle Isle

The city sits on the shores of the Detroit River, with the US - Canada border cutting along the centre of the waterway and the Canadian city of Windsor just across. On the US side of the river is Belle Isle, a large nature park that affords a great view of the city. When we visited, the remnants of a motor race was still evident on the isle in half-dismantled grandstands and kerbing along the roads. Fountains, museums, yacht clubs, and golf courses dot the island, but many of them were abandoned, or closed for repair or due to the icy weather. We found a small nature zoo on the eastern side that featured flora and fauna of the state of Michigan. Like much of the city, the zoo was a work in progress: entry was free, and there was construction ongoing. Much to our dismay, we just missed out on the 1 pm deer feeding session, but we able to catch a glimpse of several amphibious, aquatic, and airborne species native to the Great Lakes state. Particularly cool was a display where native birds were enticed to a window with perches and food, allowing a close up view.

Following a delicious pizza lunch, we made our way to a destination that was suggested as a must-see. And indeed, there is perhaps no more compelling symbol of the former splendour and current decay of Detroit than the enormous Michigan Central Station. Constructed in 1913 and designed by the same architect as Grand Central Station in New York, over two hundred trains a day left the station at its peak prior to World War I, and even in the 1940s thousands of people worked in the available office spaces. But the inexorable popularity of cars saw the station finally abandoned and service discontinued in 1988. The building has been empty and derelict ever since, save for the occasional movie shoot or illegal rave. Today, it is fenced off, standing forlornly behind the large Roosevelt Park. Just a few windows retain their original glass, and the wind howls through the building, curling around the lone American flag flying in front. It is an almost tragic scene, representing the dark side of industrialisation and capitalism. I can only imagine how grand it must have been at its peak.

On a field near the railway station sat a curious urban art exhibit in the form of putt-putt golf. Each hole was assembled from rusted, broken, castoff, and scavenged pieces of all sorts of things. One hole ran the ball through a rusted car, via the bonnet and out the tailpipe at the back to the hole. Another took the ball up and down long pipe sections before dropping onto a concrete green. The clubhouse was made of what appeared to be burned out timbers collected from an abandoned home. 

Just behind the art installation is the Imagination Station - a performance space that has been gutted by fire. Occurrences like this are reportedly all too common in Detroit, and sadly, the problems seem to be exacerbated by rather than addressed by all levels of government. The city is deeply in debt, but income continues to drop precipitously due to unpaid taxes and the shrinking population. In March 2013 an emergency administrator was appointed to run the city due to its extreme fiscal problems, and it's possible that the city may declare bankruptcy in what would be the largest municipal government failure in history.

Detroit today is a grim place, but not without some hope for the future. Just today I saw an article on how young entrepreneurs are trying to rebuild the city, piece by piece. There are others like Patrick and Elizabeth who have staked their turf, investing in property for the long haul. There are many problems facing the city in its immediate future, but maybe someday I can return to Detroit and see a city rising up off the ground where it fell, and finding again its place amongst the great cities of America.

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